In Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by two charitable gentlemen who ask him to donate to help the poor at Christmas. The passage reads:
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
Scrooge’s reply is less than charitable, asking “Are there no prisons? Are there no union workhouses?” He goes on to say that he “can’t afford to make idle people merry!”
Now “A Christmas Carol” was first published in 1843, over 175 years ago, and yet some of the scenes he describes could well be describing places in the UK today, where many “suffer greatly” and lack “common necessaries” whilst “hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts.”
But is our response as individuals, communities, and a nation any better than that of the misguided Scrooge? Have we learned the lessons he did and helped our fellow humans back to the path of dignity and self-respect, or are we at risk of the same narrow-minded judgments, prejudices and stigmas that frequent the pages of Dickens’ many novels?
“Put aside all the noise, the digs, the party politics and let’s focus on the reality; a significant number of children are going to bed tonight hungry… We must stop stigmatising, judging and pointing fingers. We talk about the devastating impact of COVID-19 but, if projections are anything to go by, child food poverty has the potential to become the greatest pandemic the country has ever faced.”
The problem – poverty and destitution
Even the word ‘destitution’ sounds like something from a Dickens novel, and yet the problem is a very real and modern one. A report published last month by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, identified some alarming statistics. It measured destitution in two ways: 1) through lack of access to essentials (shelter, food, heating, lighting, clothing/footwear, and basic toiletries); and 2) extremely low or no income. It stated:
- Destitution in the UK is rising and has been exacerbated by the pandemic
- More than a million UK households experienced destitution at some point in 2019 – representing 2.4 million people, including 550,000 children
- Destitution levels are highest in the North East, London and the North West
- Young adults (aged 34 and under) are most likely to be identified as living in destitution
In addition, 14% of UK families with children have experienced food insecurity in the past 6 months which has led to a rise in food bank use. Between 1 April 2019 and 31 March 2020, the number of three-day emergency food supplies given to people in crisis by Trussell Trust food banks in the financial year 2019-2020 was 1.9 million. In the last five years, food bank use in the Trussell Trust distribution network increased by 74% from 1,112,395 in 2015 to 1,900,122 in 2019.
Food insecurity means that “access to adequate food for active, healthy living is limited by lack of money and other resources.” In cases of very low food security, at least one member of the household changes their eating habits, reducing their own intake, in order to make more food available for others.
Over last summer and into the winter, Marcus Rashford, a footballer from Manchester, has been spearheading a movement to try to ensure that underprivileged schoolchildren have access to free food over the holidays, forcing a U-turn from the Government in the summer. What’s clear is that something needs to be done.
One of the biggest problems is the stigma associated with poverty and food bank use, which, can stop people getting the help they need. A survey carried out by the East End Women’s project found that many people felt too ‘embarrassed’ or ‘ashamed’ to visit a food bank because of the stigma associated with it, yet research also suggests that many people in the poverty trap have adults in the house who work; the problem is that their income is just not sufficient for their basic needs. According to the Trussell Trust, the top three reasons for referral to a food bank were low income, benefit delays and benefit changes which can result in cashflow problems. Sometimes people simple don’t know how to access food banks or where to get help.
What can be done?
Obviously, the pandemic has put a massive strain on the entire country and has exacerbated the problem as people have faced lockdowns, restricted work opportunities, reduced incomes and unemployment. Government borrowing is at a record high, and the level of support offered to help retain jobs and support incomes has been unprecedented. Yet children are still going hungry each day in the UK.
You may know families in your setting who are facing destitution or on the edges of poverty and you may want to do everything you can to support them. We’ve listed some ways that you can raise awareness in your setting and try to tackle the stigma head on.
- Talk about the problems openly, but sensitively, and put-up posters raising awareness of child poverty using the latest statistics or the pandemic as a background to an awareness campaign
- Find out about your local food bank and how people can access it – usually people need a referral from an organisation such as the Citizens Advice, or a GP
- Ensure that families are aware of the free school meals which are available for all children in infant schools and for pupils who meet the eligibility criteria
- Read the government guidance here which shows some of the extra help that the Government is supplying due to the pandemic
- Run a related anti-bullying programme
- Set up a food parcel service
- Donate to a food bank
- Volunteer to help at a food bank or to collect/deliver parcels
Whatever you do, approach the situation with kindness and compassion and let’s confine poverty to the history books, where it belongs.
For information on the impact of food insecurity, see here.
For information on how to access food banks, see here.